The I Files: Movin’ on up

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Last August, encouraged by YouTube and initially funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, we took a wild gamble. The Center for Investigative Reporting decided to launch a YouTube channel that would feature the best investigative news videos we could find. We named it The I Files.

Call us crazy (and some did), but the idea was to carve out a space for credible, high-quality, investigative journalism in the Wild West of the Web, the almost incomprehensibly vast YouTube universe that is normally home to amateur videos, celebrity self-promotion and the Harlem Shake. 

Our plan was not just to feature videos, multimedia projects and animations produced by CIR. The idea was for CIR to curate and highlight the work of media partners, large and small, long established and upstart. We would create a common ground for investigative reporting videos – a place for one-stop shopping, as we say, for people who want to dig deep and investigate their world.

We signed up partners including The New York Times, BBC, ABC, Reuters, NPR, Al-Jazeera, Vice, ProPublica and a host of independent filmmakers around the world, along with our colleagues at the Investigative News Network, which includes the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity. We scoured YouTube for video gems tucked away where few could find them. And on Aug. 2, we pressed play.

Nine months into this experiment, we’ve learned some things about what works and what doesn’t. One thing we know for sure: We have found an audience, and it’s growing steadily.

Earlier this month, we reached a milestone: 2 million videos views, an exciting moment for this fledgling journalistic endeavor.

We continue to grow at a pace of 300,000 or more views every month. It took us more than five months to hit our first million views. We rang up our second million in three months.

And that’s only counting the views for the 90-plus videos we’ve posted on The I Files that carry our brand – videos produced by CIR, the BBC and independent documentary filmmakers who let us excerpt their work.

The other 200 or so videos you can watch on The I Files are selected by CIR, but their views are registered on the sites of the media partners who produce them: Frontline, The New York Times, Channel 4 (UK), Al-Jazeera, NPR, Journeyman Pictures, The Nation, the Guardian (UK), Reuters, among others. All together, on our partners' websites and on The I Files, those 200-plus videos have been viewed a grand total of 34 million times.

So, accomplishment No. 1: We are drawing viewers and proving that there’s an appetite for discovering and watching investigative videos on YouTube.

Accomplishment No. 2: We also have shown that people will watch our I Files videos far longer than the standard two minute “in and out” YouTube viewing time. Our average to date is five and a half minutes. And on many of our more popular videos, people watch far longer. Our graphic animated video, The Shooter,” about the U.S. Navy Seal who shot and killed Osama bin Laden, has recorded 420,000 views, and more than half of those viewers watched for 10 minutes, while roughly a third viewed the entire 18-minute story.

A French-subtitled version of “The Shooter,” posted on The I Files and a website produced by Le Monde, Courrier International, attracted an additional 375,000 views in France, as well as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal. This is a particularly strong example of a trend we’ve established on The I Files. While most of our viewers are in North America, we have a considerable international following, and foreign news investigations play very well on The I Files channel.

Another lesson: We’ve confirmed that YouTube is a very male, youthful universe, and The I Files audience is also skewing heavily male, from 50 to 80 percent on any given story. But so far, our audience is older – mainly between 35 and 64. (On the other hand, our I Files Facebook page, with more than 74,000 “likes,” is populated mainly by young women. Go figure.)   

But enough about numbers, what are you actually going to see on The I Files?

Lately, we have featuredDrones Over America(The New York Times), about the booming industry in “unmanned navigation” including a college degree program in North Dakota where students master all things drone;All the President's Torturers(Al-Jazeera), about Brazil's efforts to come to terms with its repressive past on the eve of hosting the World Cup and the Olympics; andThe Bombing of al-Bara(PBS Frontline), a riveting portrayal of a Syrian jet attacking a village inhabited by civilian refugees and opposition fighters filmed by an intrepid cameraman, Olly Lambert. 

We’ve also run a story from Channel 4 in the UK about some enterprising Africans who have duped Western TV news crews into believing they were Somali pirates;Putin’s Kiss,” an excerpt of a Danish television documentary about a young Russian woman whose devotion to the country's president is shaken when her journalist friend, a Putin critic, is brutally beaten; and a full documentary,Just Hang Up,” from "Dan Rather Reports," exposing scams that target the elderly.

On The I Files, we are eclectic in style and content, and we define “investigative” broadly. We guarantee that on any given day you’ll discover something you didn’t know, whether the revealing story comes in the form of an animation (The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers); a multimedia piece (Too Young to Wed); an independent report from Global Post (Sexual Assault in Tahrir Square); or an Oscar-winning short documentary like Inocente,” about a homeless girl in San Diego who dreams of becoming an artist.

The I Files takes you places you’ve never been and into worlds you’ve never experienced from women’s jails in Afghanistan (Prisoners of Tradition) to prison hospices in California (Dying in Prison), from the smoggiest urban landscape in China (Inside China’s Most Polluted City) to the savannahs of East Africa (“Where Have All the Elephants Gone?).

It’s not all grim. We have a sense of humor, at least a sense of the absurd, and we have a penchant for those quirky stories that explain complicated things like the Higgs boson or reveal the false calorie labeling on fast foods (Calorie Detective).

We have had particular success with animation on The I Files – whether it's illustrating serious pieces like "The Shooter" or "In Jennifer's Room," about the rape of a patient in a center for the severely disabled, or something lighter like "The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers." We'll be doing more of these because animations based on solid reporting appear to be an effective way of delivering a story on a YouTube channel.

Some things don’t work very well, including traditional TV news reports with studio anchor intros. The format looks antiquated on YouTube. Traffic drops off precipitously. On the other hand, we are finding that people will watch almost anything, as long as it’s a compelling story.

Accomplishment No. 3: That’s still ahead of us. Our immediate goal is to sign up more subscribers for The I Files channel. So far we’ve attracted some 7,500 subscribers, and the pace is picking up, but we’re looking for a lot more. We encourage you to subscribe. It's free. Just click “subscribe” when you visit The I Files, and you won’t miss a thing.

With the support of CIR, especially Chief Strategy Officer Joaquin Alvarado and Executive Producer Sharon Tiller, The I Files is produced by a hardworking little team led by producer Amanda Pike, Web producer Sam Ward, Online Engagement Coordinator Julia B. Chan and myself as senior producer.

Coming up soon, we plan to produce some low-cost, multimedia pieces specifically for The I Files, experimenting with other forms of storytelling that might be particularly well-suited for YouTube.

Meanwhile, we are branching out. Pike writes a weekly column for Salon.com, highlighting the top five video picks from The I Files. Hulu has asked us to recommend documentaries to its audience, which we now do as a regular feature. And a broadcaster has approached us about co-producing a weekly news show based on The I Files model.

Going beyond the 2 million mark is sweet, but believe me, the best is yet to come.

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